Simon Tay (b. 1961)
A Critical Review in 5 Parts
Written by Jennifer Anne Champion
Dated 4 Nov 2015
All along the coast
Singaporeans–as we are now–
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
We sit at the water’s edge as kings once did
determined to command the growing tide.
(“Changi: In Three Scenes,” Prism)
One must keep a clear mind to look at the work without the baggage of prestige. I start by forgetting that since writing his first collections of poetry, 5 and Prism, Simon Tay (b. 1961) has served as a nominated member of parliament, is accomplished in several genres of writing, and has been awarded various scholarships and prizes for his publications.
I start in 1985. Tay is a 24-year-old undergraduate who writes of himself in the third person: A “young writer, honing his talent and his craft. And, certainly, a lot has been happening to him in the last four years, both personally, and in his writing” (Tay, 5,66). There is a whiff of youthful self-indulgence.
His book is dedicated to his late father. It is awful to lose a parent this young. He is the president of his university’s student union and a fine wine enthusiast. And he describes “the best woman taste” as a parade of fruit (“Love Poem (One),” 5). As a woman in my 20s, I would tell Simon that women are tired of being described as carnal consumables. I cringe particularly at “… but o / you have your fleshy moments” and the violability within the concluding lines “you taste best / when teeth put your skin / to test”. This poem is a seduction that fails to seduce a female reader. Being compared to grapes and strawberries–no matter how luscious–is still a comparison to an inert object.
But I must forgive him because it is 1985. I am not even born yet.
Simon’s style, as John Kwan-Terry describes, has “a self-conscious plainness” (Critical Engagements 76). Simon’s preferred poetic technique is deconstruction. Weighty subjects such as ‘gender’ are broken down, if simplistically, in order to render contested spaces of power, manipulation and absence. Take, for example, “Two Figures When One Is Sick”:
If the woman pales,
the man with the damp towel
tenses his arm and is her lover
or will be or will want to be.
The mode of instruction here is plain. Simon implies that in heteronormative relationships, a man does not serve a woman without prospect or gain. This troubling implication is the central tension of the poem. The male subject’s expression of desire is, and possibly always is, a gesture towards conquest motivated by a woman’s “pale” weakness. Tay continues:
If it is the man,
the woman need not be herself.
Desire does not result in reciprocation. A woman can afford to “find her own figure,” to be unresponsive to a man’s needs, when he is weak and unable to demand her aid (Tay, 5). Ultimately, while a woman may be a source of comfort and validation to her partner by taking him under her wing, a part of her is elsewhere: “Her words find their own meaning” (Tay, 5, 11). This sentiment echoes in the work of other Singapore poets such as Gwee Li Sui who in his poem “Cognition Gap” writes:
Our women are liberated and our men feel feminized
Our parents stress ancestral East, our kids are westernized
(from Who Wants to Buy A Book Of Poems?, 5)
It is unsurprising that Tay’s principal themes include the routine of white-collar culture, arguably a large component of the Singaporean psyche.
1985 was a formative year for the Singapore Dream. Later to be popularly termed the 5Cs, this local brand of materialism–an obsession with acquiring cash, cars, credit cards, condominiums and country club memberships–stemmed from a deep-seated anxiety regarding status, class and income. Materialism and psychological stability became salient concerns in 1985 when Singapore saw its first post-independence recession. One feels the creeping pangs of labour in some of Tay’s poems.
Repetition in poems such as “Morning Two Versions” and “The Chosen Unchosen Sky Blind Man Who Sits” serve to illustrate the monotony of modern life as Singaporeans grapple with their first-world city identity. In the “The Chosen Unchosen,” particularly, the tedious variations of the phrase “how many mushrooms can one man munch if one man munched mushrooms?” turns the poem to mush.
In “My Seventh Morning”–a reference to the Christian creation narrative–Tay presents the white-collar male as constructed of endless “morning[s]” of “tie and shirt,” “the curt / Early call,” “shake wake shower[s]” and “traffic jams” (Tay, 5). The modern man rests on the seventh morning only when there is the prospect of sexual fantasy or congress.
The poem concludes with a clever use of line breaks and placement:
in warm bed covers that smell warmly
of you, like
rolling in dreams;
This morning is planning to call in sick
The seventh of the day of rest must be justified within a tightly regulated labour force, as must desire and illness. Desire, in particular, evoked by the phrase “rolling in dreams,” is a floating concept in a world that only understands the binary of working hours and non-working/sick hours. If the modern Singaporean man in the 1980s is a God, he has limited agency.
For Tay, desire and economy are inextricably linked. The modern economy shapes expectations between partners and their modes of expression. In “The Aged Rake Speaks,” Tay writes:
How many girls have given up
dreaming of the knight on his white charger
and settled for a guy in a Colt Lancer
ready to account for love with Master Charge?
The fifth section of 5 touches one most. However, its construction reveals some salient issues regarding the Singaporean writer writing in English in a period where people were anxious to establish a culture distinct from their colonial and post-separation history.
Tay’s leitmotif of fathers and sons in the fifth section of 5 borrows primarily from the Western canon. Joseph and Jesus. Daedalus and Icarus. Uther Pendragon and the theft of his son Arthur by the wizard and surrogate father figure, Merlin. This choice is jarring in relation to the second section of 5, which concerns itself with a ‘Singaporean’ idiom. Tay’s re-tellings of the struggle between father and son do not compare well with their Western-influenced counterparts. However, they do articulate parental loss and an urgency to record the passage of knowledge, a trauma that is ripe for re-examination by the writer across various backdrops.
This mix of West and East, with poems oddly drawing from one tradition or the other but never both, is a jarring but perhaps sincere expression of cultural identity for Singapore’s young writers in the 1980s. Alistair Pennycook writes:
There is a new generation emerging from the blocks of government flats, an educated youth concerned with money and material goods and enjoying themselves, a generation fluent in English and starting to read and write literature that suits their own interests and concerns, but a generation wondering where the dreams have gone and how to name them. (290)
The work of Simon Tay can be described as a sincere attempt to acknowledge the materialism and pragmatic attitudes emerging in Singapore then as part of our cultural heritage. In “Speaking English” Tay writes: “little knew how the grammar / possessed”. His work completes the picture of the educated Singaporean, more exposed to the Western canon than any local one.
Gwee Li Sui. “Cognition Gap.” Who Wants To Buy A Book Of Poems?. Singapore: Landmark Books, 1998.
Kwan-Terry, John. “Simon Tay: The Magician To His Audience.” Critical Engagements: Singapore Poems In Focus. Ed. Kirpal Singh. Singpore: Heinemann Publishers Asia Pte Ltd, 1986.
Pennycook, Alastair. “Writing Back: The Appropriation of English.” The Cultural Politics of English As An International Language. London: Routledge, 2014.
Tay, Simon. Prism. Singapore: Simon Tay, 1980.
—. 5. Singapore: Department of English Language and Literature, National University of Singapore, 1985.